Trends in heroin and pharmaceutical opioid overdose deaths in Australia

Drug Alcohol Depend. 2017 Oct 1:179:291-298. doi: 10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2017.07.018. Epub 2017 Aug 14.


Background: There has been international concern over the rise in fatal pharmaceutical opioid overdose rates, driven by increased opioid analgesic prescribing. The current study aimed to examine trends in opioid overdose deaths by: 1) opioid type (heroin and pharmaceutical opioids); and 2) age, gender, and intent of the death assigned by the coroner.

Methods: Analysis of data from the National Coronial Information System (NCIS) of opioid overdose deaths occurring between 2001 and 2012.

Results: Deaths occurred predominantly (98%) among Australians aged 15-74 years. Approximately two-thirds of the decedents (68%) were male. The heroin overdose death rate remains unchanged over the period; these were more likely to occur among males. Pharmaceutical opioid overdose deaths increased during the study period (from 21.9 per million population in 2001-36.2), and in 2012 they occurred at 2.5 times the incident rate of heroin overdose deaths. Increases in pharmaceutical opioid deaths were largely driven by accidental overdoses. They were more likely to occur among males than females, and highest among Australians aged 45-54 years. Rates of fentanyl deaths in particular showed an increase over the study period (from a very small number at the beginning of the period) but in 2012 rates of morphine deaths were higher than those for oxycodone, fentanyl and tramadol.

Conclusions: Given the increase in rates of pharmaceutical opioid overdose deaths, it is imperative to implement strategies to reduce pharmaceutical opioid-related mortality, including more restrictive prescribing practices and increasing access to treatment for opioid dependence.

Keywords: Drug overdose; Fentanyl; Heroin; Morphine; Mortality; Opioid analgesics; Oxycodone; Prescription opioids.

MeSH terms

  • Analgesics, Opioid / poisoning*
  • Australia
  • Drug Overdose / epidemiology
  • Drug Overdose / mortality*
  • Fentanyl / pharmacology
  • Heroin / poisoning*
  • Humans
  • Morphine / pharmacology
  • Opioid-Related Disorders / mortality*
  • Oxycodone / pharmacology
  • Pharmaceutical Preparations
  • Tramadol / pharmacology


  • Analgesics, Opioid
  • Pharmaceutical Preparations
  • Tramadol
  • Heroin
  • Morphine
  • Oxycodone
  • Fentanyl